Ask Jessie James Decker about the vocal ad-libs that color the last 20 seconds of her single “Should Have Known Better,” and she’ll mention a bundle of influences: Christina Aguilera, Janis Joplin, Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin.
The name that doesn’t come up: Shania Twain.
“Sometimes I try not to say it too much because I feel like it’s so obvious,” Decker concedes. “But she is such a huge influence on me.”
That’s apparent in “Should Have Known Better.” Nir Z’s stand-alone kick drum in the opening bar echoes “Any Man of Mine,” Decker evinces a caramel-coated resonance that resembles Twain’s tone, and the song’s resilient, female-empowerment message is the kind of emphatic confidence that sold “(If You’re Not in It For Love) I’m Outta Here!” and “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” Even the title of Decker’s current EP, The Woman I’ve Become, sounds unintentionally like The Woman in Me.
“What I loved about Shania more than anyone was that she made the whole world fall in love with country music in a different way,” says Decker. “She was able to blur the lines and still keep the authenticity of country music, but still make it for those that didn’t really know what country is. When I went overseas last year and I was telling everyone I was from Nashville, they kept saying, ‘Oh, Chris Stapleton and Shania Twain.’ That’s who they knew.”
Decker is likely to upgrade her own public identity with “Should Have Known Better,” a blend of rock and country with an ascendant, sing-along chorus and revitalizing message. It’s the first single she has released to country radio during her career, even though her debut album hit the market in 2009, and she snagged a No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums listing with her Southern Girl City Lights in 2017.
“I was supposed to put a single out at the top of 2020, and with the world shutting down, we decided to just wait, and wait, and wait,” she says. “And we continued to wait, which was the right move.”
At least some of the reason that worked out well is due to “Should Have Known Better,” which showed up in February 2021. Even then, it had a Twain sensibility to it. “Growing up, my mom would move the living room furniture, and we’d dance to Shania,” says songwriter Madi Yanofsky, who co-wrote it on Feb. 7, 2020, with British songwriter Peter Kelleher — a.k.a. Murfie — when he had an unexpected extra day in Los Angeles. “She embodied it in a way that was fearless. It was incredibly powerful. I found that my favorite form of female country was that kind of fearless, I-can-do-anything-I-want, powerful woman, and so I was hoping to embody that.”
Murfie pulled up a country-ish track at the start of the writing appointment, and Yanofsky — who grew up listening to country in Vermont — was all in. The music had a post-breakup air about it, and Yanofsky began to associate it with a male singer she had dated briefly. He was condescending about her musical skills, and this particular track underscored how she had risen above his negativity.
“Sometimes when people underestimate us, especially when it’s a romantic partner, you feel the need to prove [something] to them — but ultimately, it’s to prove [it] to yourself,” she says.
“Should Have Known Better” emerged as a title that fit the sound, and with beers in hand, they started building phrases to paint the guy as a jerk who overlooked a golden opportunity: “You get what you give, and you reap what you sow.” Before the first verse concludes, it’s clear she gets along just fine without him.
Once the chorus hit, they applied a rising melody to the hook, “Should have known better than to break my heart” — emphasizing her renewed beauty, and even adding in a double “hallelujah,” implying that her rebound has a spiritual component to it. “There are moments when we feel a presence of the universe or of God,” says Yanofsky. “The wins that I had experienced and that I was trying to have come across in ‘Should Have Known Better’ had nothing to do with this earthly little romance of this guy not treating me right. It was the universe, God telling me I have better things in store.”
Kelleher’s production team — TMS, including partners Benjamin Kohn and Tom Barnes — finished a demo about three weeks later that took a stab at country without being too on the nose. BMG Nashville creative director Courtney Allen had long promised Decker that she would supply Decker’s first hit, and she sent the demo in February 2021 with a note that this might be it. Decker agreed and played it repeatedly during a family trip, with her kids asking for it.
She knew it needed some work to fit mainstream country — and before she played it for Warner Music Nashville (WMN) executives, she wanted it more on point. So she contacted songwriter-producer Matt McVaney, who made a few minor tweaks and recorded Decker’s vocal. She nailed it in just two takes, and she rewrote a pair of swear words to make the song more family-friendly: “Where you left your s–t, now a flower has grown” became “Where you left your dirt …” and “karma’s a b–ch” turned into “karma’s a bit.” That latter phrase is so common that changing the profanity actually brings more attention to it.
“Sometimes,” Decker quips, “you don’t need to give away the farm.”
WMN liked what it heard, though it still needed some work. The company’s executive vp/creative advisor of A&R Scott Hendricks was asked to tackle another version, reframing Decker’s vocals with new musical tracks. “We basically put a foundation on a house that was already built,” says Hendricks. “We pretty much started from scratch with real instruments to build the foundation underneath what was there.”
Decker was on vacation with her family in Italy when Hendricks held the session at Ocean Way on Music Row, but she checked in frequently to see how things were going. She asked that they apply a Twain vibe, and Hendricks allowed the musicians their own interpretations. Jimmie Lee Sloas laid down three different bass parts in the process. Two were in action throughout the entire two-and-a-half-minute song — one of those basses had a more biting attack — and the third bass appears in the choruses, adding some thunder to the bottom end.
“He had one bass that had some roundness to it,” Hendricks recalls. “It sounded great, but we were lacking the point in addition to it being round. And there’s no bass that probably could do that by itself. And I made him play with a pick — I’ve done that a bunch of times, but it’s not common in country music.”
Decker’s feedback was valuable — “Jesse’s got really good ears,” says Hendricks — and the most important observation was the tempo. The demo had mysteriously been sent to Hendricks a few beats slower than it was originally recorded, and the production team went back in and sped up the track, refitting Decker’s vocal separately.
WMN released “Should Have Known Better” to country radio via PlayMPE on March 8. Originally given an April 11 add date, it was rescheduled for a May 2 target. Says Decker: “I’ve never been more ready.”